In May 2021, Tolu Olubunmi was invited to deliver the keynote address at the World Migration and Displacement Symposium: Data, Disinformation and Human Mobility. Ms. Olubunmi shared her moving immigration story and described her path toward advocacy and public policy. This piece is an edited and streamlined version of her speech, a video recording of which can be seen below.
Earlier this year, I gave the keynote address at the World Migration and Displacement Symposium: Data, Disinformation and Human Mobility—a virtual event co-organized by USA for IOM, USA for UNHCR, and Harvard Data Science Review (HDSR). Over the course of three days, the event brought together global thinkers and leaders from business, NGOs, and academia to discuss the persistent challenge of disinformation and how we can all mitigate its effects on populations experiencing vulnerability. Strategies were conceived and commitments made to strengthen collaborations between academia, humanitarian actors, and key voices in the data science community as we work to combat the negative rhetoric around human mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
This special issue theme for HDSR is designed to build on the cross-sector collaboration spurred by the symposium and showcase how important the work of data science is in the larger movement to help those displaced and migrating. As such, it is fitting that I contribute my story of migration to this issue in an effort to raise awareness and mobilize support for addressing the complex humanitarian challenges faced by people on the move.
My name is Tolu Olubunmi and I am a migrant. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and grew up in the United States. Today, I am described as a political strategist, activist, social entrepreneur, and advocate, but I actually started off as a chemical engineer. I recognized my passion for engineering at the age of 8. As a child, I did not have the words to classify that passion. I only knew that I loved the word ‘WHY’ and I enjoyed the practical, methodical search for the answers I craved to make sense of my world. I found my way to the chemistry side of engineering while roaming the halls of Washington and Lee University, both perplexed and excited by Chemistry 101. However, the choices and circumstances that set me on the path toward protecting the free movement of people is not what 8-year-old Tolu envisioned.
My path toward advocacy and public policy was born out of necessity, nurtured by the untenable circumstances of the powerless and driven by the need for a more just society. My path was laid before me when I was barely 14 years old and left Nigeria to chase my dreams across oceans, anchored only by the hopes of a mother and father for a life worthy of praise yet grounded in humility. Although unknowable then were the unequal parts of adversity and triumph to come.
My American immigrant story is one of the far too common stories of those ‘living in the gray’ —the colorless existence of the ‘paperless,’ shrouded in fear and hidden in the shadows. In my case, beneath the bewilderment, uncertainty, and seemingly endless struggle that comes with being undocumented and locked out of your dreams through no fault of your own, was a call to engage in the cause that was and is my concern—democracy. My catalyst for change came in the form of the 2008 presidential election, which challenged me to explore my responsibility to the country that has shaped my ideas of justice, opportunity, and civic participation. I felt compelled to help secure a better future for the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who also crossed oceans and deserts for a life worthy of praise yet grounded in humility.
Although undocumented, I began my work not with a whimper but helping to build the largest immigrant youth movement in U.S. history. Then I built a career that drew on this crisis in my life to give face and name to the plight of many—to create space and foster dialogue, shift culture, and get us closer to eradicating the hatred of the other that keeps us divided. As it was when I was 8, I found a passion but did not have the words for it. To me, I was simply doing my part—being a useful tool for a larger cause. I had become an activist without realizing it. But the truth is that stripped of divisive political messaging, activism is quite simply putting public action behind our inner convictions.
Leaning on my past training to make sense of this new world, I approached activism as a scientist would, analyzing the arguments for and against, and dispassionately testing my thesis. I quickly saw that changes in public policy require shifts in culture that necessitate a redefining of advocacy. You see, significant shifts in public policy generally do not originate from policymakers, much less public policy shifts, which politicians perceive as not in their political interests. True change comes from the bottom up—from you, the individual, to the masses, and finally to the policymakers. And advocacy, no matter how well-intentioned, falls short when those we are fighting for are not invited to the battle. When we include those directly affected, it shows an authenticity of purpose and promotes a sense of pride that ignites a desire to live beyond the limits of their circumstances.
My absolute favorite African proverb says, “Until the lion learns to write all the stories will glorify the hunter.” In 2009, I, along with my coalition of the willing, gave rise to advocacy in the United States where those directly affected by a broken immigration system unveiled the lives lived in the shadow of statistics and innuendos. Dreamers—named for the DREAM Act immigration legislation—decimated the false narrative of undocumented immigrants as a monolithic group of uneducated and ill-engaged individuals, and revealed a diverse, committed, commanding, and relatable group of immigrants. Our voices shattered myths, misconceptions, and ignited a nation’s consciousness. The stories of struggle and perseverance told in our own words made way for a seismic shift in the public’s understanding of the undocumented. We empowered allies and policymakers to make arguments for reform rooted in reality and backed by human connection. Together we taught the lion to write!
My journey to this moment has been difficult, complex, and quite frankly unimaginable, at least when it all started. Every moment that I spend advancing the cause of migrants and refugees is out of recognition of the privilege that I enjoy—the ability to speak my truth and be heard. Although imperfect, that ability to give voice and value to the voiceless, who are no different from me, is a responsibility I am honored to hold.
Through heartbreak and pain, I turned a crisis in my life into an opportunity to innovate around issues affecting migrants, refugees, and displaced people. I turned my inability to live and work where I wanted into a World Economic Forum initiative that redefined migration to include the free movement of minds—connecting talent to employers across borders and reducing brain drain while promoting economic prosperity. Every day I use my experiences and platform at the United Nations to shine a light on the struggles of migrants and refugees around the globe—using our plight and promise as the touchpoint for closing the gap between the myth of us versus them while striving to get the world closer to a more hopeful future of we.
As we continue to endure massive disruption and high uncertainty, of equal importance must be how we get through this crisis and how to ensure that we learn from this crisis. Humanity has failed countless times, yet we moved forward. But beyond simply moving forward, this tipping point we have reached requires a push to make failure matter. Our failures when it comes to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic can be the basis for transformational change in addressing the impact of climate change, building empathy that leads to action on the migrant and refugee crises, mobilizing the political will necessary to end extreme poverty and hunger, and combating disinformation while innovating to close the digital divide.
For the first time in our history, each of us can relate to every other person on the planet. We are all going through the same storm, and although we are not all in the same boat—some are riding out this storm in yachts while others can barely keep their heads above water in rafts—nevertheless, there is a connectedness. Empathy can thrive in this situation. For the first time it is easier to draw a near direct line between citizens of the West racing to protect their families from similar potential threats as those faced by migrants and refugees who long before this crisis struggled with educating their kids, preserving their livelihoods, and gaining access to medical care and other resources.
To get through this with our humanity intact and ‘build back better,’ we must honor the massive amount of tragedy, suffering, and death by learning from, growing from, and making necessary adjustment to ensure that we never go through a similar crisis the same way again. We must also take the opportunity to fix those parts of our world that have always been broken but are now made ever more plain and painful by the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing “misinfodemic,” which trades in fear and politicization. The tremendous growth in the distortion of truth across expanding communications platforms is undermining science, evidence-based policy, and even social cohesion. It weakens our ability to provide a unified response to humanitarian crises around the globe worsened by the health crisis of COVID-19. And, it further marginalizes already vulnerable populations. Exposing false narratives and sharing reliable information is the only way to contain the virus of disinformation.
In a world where the politics of migration is volatile and often divorced from reality, migrants and refugees are too often stripped of their humanity and lost in rhetoric. When it comes to migration and for the benefit of integration, exposure to the struggles and triumphs of migrants, refugees, and displaced people is necessary. My story of migration, with all of its twists, turns, and uncertainties, has served as a source of hope for me and many others. Hope that tells you that you matter. Hope that tells you that you can make a difference and your presence means something. Hope that helped me build a life that inspires and impacts many.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that our world is capable of making quick and drastic shifts to protect life and give back hope where it was once lost. Our world is desperate for our contributions to its survival and our prosperity. Each and every one of us has a part to play in protecting the most vulnerable amongst us. Each and every one of us has been entrusted with the sacred duty to fill the gaps between our ideals and the realities of our time. We must be the ones to welcome the stranger to our land. We must be the ones to put protecting the health of another over our own comfort. We must be the ones to stand up and demand that you take your knee off of our brothers and sisters’ necks. We must turn every good intention into action and choose to be part of the solution rather than unintentionally complicit in the struggles facing the world.
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